Why Belgium matters

Cross-posted from the Z Word blog

The German newspaper Der Tageszeitung recently quipped that Belgium was the “most successful ‘failed’ state.” Hard to believe, but many citizens of one of the European Union’s most prosperous countries don’t believe that Belgium – qua Belgium – has a future. And their angst has important implications for current thinking about resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

First things first. Are the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish really on the cusp of breaking Belgium apart? Or is this a hyperdrama? Here’s Ian Buruma writing in no uncertain terms:

“Belgium is in danger of falling apart. For more than six months, the country has been unable to form a government that is able to unite the French-speaking Walloons (32%) and Dutch-speaking Flemish (58%). The Belgian monarch is desperately trying to stop his subjects from breaking up the state.”

Buruma argues that during the 18th and 19th centuries, when nation-states were formed, cultural, linguistic and national differences were frequently transcended in order to promote “common interests.” That was as true of Britain and Italy as it was of Belgium.

The EU has changed all that. As Buruma puts it, using another example of nationalist revival in supposedly post-national Europe, “[W]hy rely on London, say the Scots, if Brussels offers greater advantages?”

Buruma ends with a warning:

“Perhaps the citizens of Belgium do not have enough in common anymore, and the Flemish and Walloons would be better off divorced. But one hopes not. Divorces are never painless. And ethnic nationalism unleashes emotions that are undesirable.

We know what happened when the twin pulls of blood and soil determined European politics before. Without having intended it, the EU now seems to be encouraging the very forces that postwar European unity was designed to contain.”

Whether or not Belgium actually breaks up, the current strife there will have demonstrated beyond doubt that the notion of a “post-national” Europe is wishful thinking. Yet many advocates of the single-state “solution” in Israel and Palestine base their thinking on precisely this premise. Famously, in his 2003 New York Review of Books essay, Tony Judt sneered that Israel was an “anachronism…It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law.”

At the time that Judt wrote the essay, his statement had already been drowned out of earshot in the gunfire which echoed from Grozny to Sarajevo. But what Belgium (and by extension, Quebec, Scotland and the Basque Country) further demonstrates is that the national urge is not confined to those parts of the world mired in poverty, corruption and some form or other of ethnic violence.

It’s somewhat ironic, therefore, that a lengthy discourse on the Belgian model is one of the elements of Ali Abunimah’s book on Israel and Palestine, “One Country.” Abunimah says confidently that separatist sentiment there “is on the decline.” Clearly, it is not. And just as clearly, a situation is emerging where you don’t want to get caught on the wrong side of town:

“It’s gotten to the point that landlords want to rent only to Flemish speakers,” [Eugene Mesemakers] said. “I used to hire Flemish workers for building projects in Francophone areas, but now French workers need to speak Dutch to be hired by Flemish bosses. At my bank, documents are in Flemish and if you ask for them in French you’re told they’re out.”

If this is what is happening in the cradle of the European Union, in a state that has been in existence since 1830, then how is this framework to be applied in a political culture that includes the likes of Hamas?

The answer is that it cannot be. Herein lies the irony: Belgium is held up as the inspiration for a one-state solution in the Middle East at precisely the time when significant numbers of Flemish and Walloons are militating for a two-state solution in their own domain.

Sovereignty can be pooled. Borders can be open. Trade can be conducted without barriers. None of these admirable goals is incompatible with the status of statehood. Indeed, statehood is perhaps a necessary condition of their flourishing. This is why Palestine needs to be conceived of alongside Israel, not instead of it.